Someone should tell the Christian right: to the victor go the spoils. The triumph of the marriage equality campaign has powerful homophobic lobby groups and politicians licking their wounds and demanding a consolation prize. Our response should be: you get nothing.
The prime minister’s Religious Discrimination Bill has not much to do with religion, and nothing to do with anti-discrimination. It’s about recasting homophobes and transphobes as the poor widdle victims of zealous gays. “This new debate is not about opposing same sex marriage”, said Scott Morrison after marriage equality passed parliament in 2017. “It is about sensibly protecting religious freedoms.” The new crusade begins the day the old one dies.
The sacking and subsequent court case of Israel Folau has become a cause célèbre for those backing the bill. A multimillionaire and certifiable dickhead, Folau might not quite be the oppressed wedding cake maker they want for a poster boy. But that hasn’t stopped the Australian Christian Lobby donating $100,000 to his legal challenge. They want laws that protect public figures like Folau from any consequences of virulent homophobia and transphobia. Just say it’s your religious conviction.
The government’s bill will include an amendment to the Marriage Act, in what can only be described as retaliation against the victory of LGBTI people and their supporters. The amendment, which Morrison moved unsuccessfully in 2017, asserts the supremacy of traditional marriage by codifying that “a man and a woman united in marriage with their children is a fundamental building block of human society ... modelling for children the gender difference and complementarity of the man and the woman”. Yuck.
The government also will create a new “Religious Freedom Commissioner” position in the Human Rights Commission: that is, a government official to address bigots’ complaints about not being able to act freely on their prejudices.
The Labor Party has, disgracefully, agreed to work with the government on this bill, while dumping blame for its bigotry on the ethnic communities of western Sydney. “Well, this is what multiculturalism looks like”, shadow assistant treasurer Stephen Jones told the ABC. “It looks like people from different cultures, different faiths, different backgrounds coming to our country and expressing different views.” To assume that migrants are more homophobic is both an insult to migrants and a way to divide migrants and LGBTI people, putting them both on the defensive.
Combating the discrimination that some religious communities, particularly Muslims, really do face is the furthest thing from the intention of this bill. The people pushing it – members of the wealthy Christian right – are also some of the most Islamophobic. The bill must be opposed no matter how they try to frame it.
The real injustice is that religious institutions are already obscenely privileged. Not only do they enjoy tax and financial perks, but they already have the right to discriminate against LGBTI people in various jurisdictions. Section 37 of the Sex Discrimination Act, for example, gives religious schools, hospitals and charities the right to sack staff, expel students and refuse service to gays, lesbians and trans people. In 2014, Christian Youth Camps denied a booking for a suicide prevention group working with same-sex attracted young people. Likewise, in the middle of the postal plebiscite, South Coast Baptist College sacked a gay teacher. Eighty percent of the population oppose religious schools having these rights, according to a 2018 YouGov Galaxy poll, but with a Religious Discrimination Bill, there’ll just be more of it.
Since the conservative right sees Morrison’s election victory as a chance to lash out, and the Labor Party is more than happy to join in, it’s down to ordinary people to be the opposition to homophobia and transphobia. “There is nothing LGBTI people can do to avoid, sate or appease this ravenous monster”, long-time LGBTI activist Rodney Croome argues in the Star Observer. “We can only challenge it.” He points out that the tremendous success of the marriage equality campaign was its focus on hitting the streets in numbers. The LGBTI community gained confidence and won huge majority support, culminating in tens of thousands marching around the country in support of a “yes” vote in 2017. That feeling of power and progress is exactly what the right are seeking to undermine.
The homophobes claim to speak for the “silent majority”. In 2017 we proved them wrong. Now they say they are a persecuted minority that should have the right to discriminate. We must prove them wrong again.